Pax Russica: as Trump abandons Syria’s Kurds, Russia is ready to expand its empire

While American troops were hurriedly leaving north-eastern Syria, a young female Kurdish politician called Hervin Khalaf was pulled from her car and executed by the side of the road. Actually, the Kurdish media said she was raped and then stoned to death. They blamed one of the Arab militias being used by Turkey in its invasion. A grim video posted online shows a man holding a Kalashnikov nudging her body with the tip of his boot, as you would a dead animal. The video has not been authenticated and the militia accused of doing this says it was miles away at the time. But in Khalaf the Syrian Kurds have

Donald Trump’s shameful Syrian betrayal

Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria is one of the most shortsighted foreign policy miscalculations in recent memory. The president’s actions leaves the West’s Kurdish allies at the mercy of Turkey. And Trump’s bizarre attempt at justification – claiming that he abandoned the Kurds because they didn’t help the United States in the Second World War – adds insult to injury. After thirty years of the US seeking to present what president George Bush called a “new world order,” a cynical American leadership is retreating – and the country’s friends are paying a heavy price.  Eastern Syria, which was one of the few relatively peaceful areas of the country, was

The joys of scavenging the Thames

‘It’s very hard for you to really live in the day,’ says Ruth, ‘because you don’t know by evening you may have a letter from an agency saying you’ve got to go tomorrow.’ She arrived in the UK in 1937, aged 15, sent here by her Jewish family to escape the Nazis. Now 98, she was talking to Nikki Tapper, a presenter for BBC West Midlands, at a community centre in Birmingham, which since 2015 has committed itself to be a city of sanctuary. In The Syrians and the Kindertransport on Radio 4 (produced by George Luke), Tapper brings together two generations of refugees, divided by 70 years, who have

A losing battle

Foreign fighters are returning from the battlefield — not Islamists but the Americans, Europeans and South Americans who fought to rid the world of Isis. But for all their bravery, their homecoming is a tricky one because their home countries do not want them back. I have now interviewed more than a dozen volunteers. Many of them share similar stories of arrests and detentions. They have been stripped of their ability to travel, have their movements monitored, their bank accounts closed. One of them, an American, has since committed suicide. One fighter, who wishes to be known as Max, tells me in an email that he has left his home

Acts of settlement

‘Put yourself in their shoes,’ says Zahra Mackaoui, a British-Lebanese journalist who has been following the stories of refugees from Syria for five years, catching up with them as they move on restlessly, searching for a place to settle. ‘Ask yourself, what would I have done?’ That question echoed through her series of documentaries for the World Service as we heard from those who have been exiled by a war in which they have played no part except as victims. What would I have done? In Beyond Borders (produced by Craig Templeton Smith), the open, frank honesty of Hani, Ayesha, Doaa Al Zamel and Fewaz gave us an opportunity to

Dictator in the dock

In the 1990s film The Usual Suspects, the detective character explains how to spot a murderer. You arrest three men for the same killing and put them in jail. The next morning, whoever’s sleeping is your killer. That’s because the nightmare of being on the run is over. It’s a relief to be caught. ‘You get some rest: let your guard down, you follow?’ I sometimes wonder if it’s the same for leaders arrested for crimes against humanity, a Karadzic or a Milosevic — and whether President Assad of Syria has the same feeling of being hunted. It’s true he has won the civil war and might think his position

Points of view | 28 February 2019

Is it me or are we now faced (or perhaps I should say fazed?) much more often by stories in the news that test our moral and ethical principles to the limit, forcing us to question ourselves and what we think to such an extent that it becomes impossible to be sure of what is right? I can never understand the high-minded righteousness and full-blown convictions of the panellists on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, who each week are given a topical issue and who then spend 45 minutes tossing it about, testing the pros and cons and questioning a group of often baffled witnesses who are invited on to the

Bangladesh doesn’t want Shamima Begum. Here’s why it might have to take her

Whatever the arguments over the Government’s decision to revoke Isis bride Shamima Begum’s British citizenship, the teenager’s future now depends on one thing: will the courts determine she is a dual national who is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship? If so, Sajid Javid’s decision is lawful, as this means that the loss of her British citizenship will not leave her stateless. But what does Bangladesh make of this row? The view from Dhaka has been clear: we don’t want her. In a statement issued this week, the country’s foreign ministry said: “The government of Bangladesh is deeply concerned that she has been erroneously identified as a holder of dual citizenship shared with

Isis bride Shamima Begum should be allowed home

So, what do you reckon then about the jihadi bride, Shamima Begum, unearthed by the Times’ Anthony Loyd in a refugee camp in Syria? Should she be brought back home for an NHS delivery for her imminent baby – with the cops hovering backstage – or left to stew in a Syrian refugee camp, to give birth in the same conditions as other mothers-to-be? I may be misjudging my readers here, but I fancy I can discern which way most of us would want to go. But the first thing to say about all this is that this wretched 19-year old is about the least important aspect of the Isis

Hunter, scholar, boaster, dreamer

The Assyrians placed sculptures of winged human-headed bulls (lamassus) at the entrances to their capital at Nineveh, in modern Mosul, to ward off evil. The mighty lamassu to the right of the Nergal Gate had been on guard for some 2,700 years when Isis vandals took a drill to it in 2015 and blew away its face. Today a copy, crafted out of date syrup cans, stands on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. It wears the oblong beard and proud look of the Assyrian kings. The original sculpture dated to the time of Sennacherib, who ruled Assyria from 705 to 681 BC, and transformed Nineveh into a magnificent metropolis.

Bad blood

‘How did this mild-mannered eye doctor end up killing hundreds of thousands of people?’ someone wondered about Bashar al-Assad in BBC2’s extraordinary three-part documentary A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC2, Saturday). It’s a question we’ve all occasionally pondered as the Syrian body count rose — 500,000 thus far — and as six million refugees fled the country. The answer is so lurid and complex that it could have come from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Chinless, studious, polite Bashar was never meant to become president of Syria. His thuggish military officer father Hafez, who seized power in 1970, had earmarked the job for his dashing equestrian soldier son Bassel. But

Syria Notebook

In order to avoid the Labour conference and yet more predictable media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, I escaped late last month to Syria, where children were returning to school after the summer holidays. Large tracts of the country have recently been liberated from the control of jihadi groups, meaning that in some places children are going back to school for the first time in five years. At Sinjar elementary school in Idlib province, I found the local headmaster painting the school sign. Five years ago rebels gave him the choice of closing down or being killed. He was confined to his house while the school buildings were converted into an arsenal.

‘People don’t care which weapon kills them’

 Beirut ‘The planes have already hit the hospitals’, said an aid worker. ‘They always do that first’ The customs man wore a white linen suit. He had a large moustache. His ample belly touched the edge of his desk. The scent of cardamom wafted over as a tiny cup of coffee was placed in front of him. I was not offered one. This was Beirut airport in the summer of 2011. We were travelling on to Syria, next door, where a civil war was beginning. The customs man lazily flicked through my passport and took another sip of coffee. ‘Everything will be seized,’ he announced with satisfaction. Television cameras, satellite

The rehabilitation of Assad

Amid the confusion and the almost deafening cries of treachery and collusion over Donald Trump’s relations with Russia, few noticed the most tangible outcome of this week’s Helsinki summit. In the lead-up to his face-to-face talk with Vladimir Putin, senior US and Russian diplomats — in close coordination with leaders from mutual ally Israel — brokered a deal among all the warring parties (bar the Islamist terrorists) finally to end the devastating seven-year Syrian civil war. As is often the case with Trump, the hype tends to drown out the message but it was there for anyone paying close enough attention. The US, Russians and Israelis have agreed on a

Putin’s rot

This is Putin’s time. Next week, the Fifa World Cup kicks off in Moscow, and the Kremlin has spared no expense to showcase Vladimir Putin’s new Russia as a vibrant, safe and strong nation. Half a million visitors will be welcomed — with the Russian press reporting that the notorious ‘Ultra’ hooligans have been officially warned to behave themselves or face the full wrath of the state. Despite four years of rock-bottom oil prices, Putin has nonetheless found the cash to build or refurbish a dozen new stadiums. Moscow has undergone a two-year city-wide facelift that has left it looking cleaner, fresher and more prosperous than any European capital I

What drama

One sphere that podcasts have so far not much penetrated is drama. is itching to develop its own brand but so far has limited itself to producing audiobooks read by a galaxy of stars. Recording plays is expensive, requires an understanding of studio techniques and a cast of actors who have learnt how to play to the microphone, not an auditorium. Only the BBC has as yet the necessary experience and resources, with its own repertory company and team of spot-effects experts and sound designers. We can only hope that stunts like The Biggest Weekend — the BBC’s attempt to put on a Glastonbury experience for the masses, with

Portrait of the Week – 19 April 2018

Home Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, apologised in Parliament for the treatment of immigrants from the Commonwealth from before 1971, known as the ‘Windrush generation’ (after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought West Indian workers to England in 1948). The 1971 Immigration Act allowed Commonwealth citizens then living in the United Kingdom indefinite leave to remain, but the Home Office kept no records of these. Some had lost their jobs, others had been refused National Health Service treatment, and others threatened with deportation. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, apologised to Caribbean heads of government who were in London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. A teenager was stabbed

We have a moral duty to mistrust the government on Syria

Almost two years have passed since Sir John Chilcot produced his 12-volume report on the lessons of the Iraq war. We collectively promised to learn the lessons. Last weekend it was as if the Chilcot report never happened. Britain, cheered on by a bellicose press and a largely docile Parliament, launched airstrikes that showed the same disregard for due process against which Chilcot warned. Remember what Chilcot told us: ‘The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.’ He concluded: ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful

Theresa May now has authority for further military action

Aside from the need to act swiftly and with an element of surprise when striking Syria’s chemical weapons capability, it is still fair to say that Number 10’s preferred option was not to have a vote before the strikes took place at the weekend. David Cameron’s experience in 2013 of failing to get parliamentary consent for action has left institutional bruising which means everyone is now cautious of asking MPs for approval, despite the fact that the Commons has in fact consented to air strikes both in Syria and Iraq since that failed vote. Parliamentary recess did make it much more convenient to avoid such a vote, and there was

Alex Massie

Windrush, Syria and the miserable state of British politics

What a dismal week this has been for British politics. And it is still only Wednesday. The distinguishing feature of this political moment is its shabbiness. The two stories dominating the news this week, Windrush and Syria, each demonstrate as much.  The Windrush scandal – it ceased being a saga some time ago – is shameful. But it is not simply a question of Home Office incompetence (some of which is only, when dealing with matters of significant complexity, to be expected) but, worse, one of Home Office vindictiveness. It is a feature of the system, not a bug within it. A system which, quite deliberately, excises humanity and common